Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Self-Interest Versus Love
On the surface, the main difference between the Christian characters and Shylock appears to be that the Christian characters value human relationships over business ones, whereas Shylock is only interested in money. The Christian characters certainly view the matter this way. Merchants like Antonio lend money free of interest and put themselves at risk for those they love, whereas Shylock agonizes over the loss of his money and is reported to run through the streets crying, “O, my ducats! O, my daughter!” (II.viii.15). With these words, he apparently values his money at least as much as his daughter, suggesting that his greed outweighs his love. However, upon closer inspection, this supposed difference between Christian and Jew breaks down. When we see Shylock in Act III, scene i, he seems more hurt by the fact that his daughter sold a ring that was given to him by his dead wife before they were married than he is by the loss of the ring’s monetary value. Some human relationships do indeed matter to Shylock more than money. Moreover, his insistence that he have a pound of flesh rather than any amount of money shows that his resentment is much stronger than his greed.
Just as Shylock’s character seems hard to pin down, the Christian characters also present an inconsistent picture. Though Portia and Bassanio come to love one another, Bassanio seeks her hand in the first place because he is monstrously in debt and needs her money. Bassanio even asks Antonio to look at the money he lends Bassanio as an investment, though Antonio insists that he lends him the money solely out of love. In other words, Bassanio is anxious to view his relationship with Antonio as a matter of business rather than of love. Finally, Shylock eloquently argues that Jews are human beings just as Christians are, but Christians such as Antonio hate Jews simply because they are Jews. Thus, while the Christian characters may talk more about mercy, love, and charity, they are not always consistent in how they display these qualities.
The Divine Quality of Mercy
The conflict between Shylock and the Christian characters comes to a head over the issue of mercy. The other characters acknowledge that the law is on Shylock’s side, but they all expect him to show mercy, which he refuses to do. When, during the trial, Shylock asks Portia what could possibly compel him to be merciful, Portia’s long reply, beginning with the words, “The quality of mercy is not strained,” clarifies what is at stake in the argument (IV.i.179). Human beings should be merciful because God is merciful: mercy is an attribute of God himself and therefore greater than power, majesty, or law. Portia’s understanding of mercy is based on the way Christians in Shakespeare’s time understood the difference between the Old and New Testaments. According to the writings of St. Paul in the New Testament, the Old Testament depicts God as requiring strict adherence to rules and exacting harsh punishments for those who stray. The New Testament, in contrast, emphasizes adherence to the spirit rather than the letter of the law, portraying a God who forgives rather than punishes and offers salvation to those followers who forgive others. Thus, when Portia warns Shylock against pursuing the law without regard for mercy, she is promoting what Elizabethan Christians would have seen as a pro-Christian, anti-Jewish agenda.
The strictures of Renaissance drama demanded that Shylock be a villain, and, as such, patently unable to show even a drop of compassion for his enemy. A sixteenth-century audience would not expect Shylock to exercise mercy—therefore, it is up to the Christians to do so. Once she has turned Shylock’s greatest weapon—the law—against him, Portia has the opportunity to give freely of the mercy for which she so beautifully advocates. Instead, she backs Shylock into a corner, where she strips him of his bond, his estate, and his dignity, forcing him to kneel and beg for mercy. Given that Antonio decides not to seize Shylock’s goods as punishment for conspiring against him, we might consider Antonio to be merciful. But we may also question whether it is merciful to return to Shylock half of his goods, only to take away his religion and his profession. By forcing Shylock to convert, Antonio disables him from practicing usury, which, according to Shylock’s reports, was Antonio’s primary reason for berating and spitting on him in public. Antonio’s compassion, then, seems to stem as much from self-interest as from concern for his fellow man. Mercy, as delivered in The Merchant of Venice, never manages to be as sweet, selfless, or full of grace as Portia presents it.
Hatred as a Cyclical Phenomenon
Throughout the play, Shylock claims that he is simply applying the lessons taught to him by his Christian neighbors; this claim becomes an integral part of both his character and his argument in court. In Shylock’s very first appearance, as he conspires to harm Antonio, his entire plan seems to be born of the insults and injuries Antonio has inflicted upon him in the past. As the play continues, and Shylock unveils more of his reasoning, the same idea rears its head over and over—he is simply applying what years of abuse have taught him. Responding to Salarino’s query of what good the pound of flesh will do him, Shylock responds, “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction” (III.i.60–61). Not all of Shylock’s actions can be blamed on poor teachings, and one could argue that Antonio understands his own culpability in his near execution. With the trial’s conclusion, Antonio demands that Shylock convert to Christianity, but inflicts no other punishment, despite the threats of fellow Christians like Gratiano. Antonio does not, as he has in the past, kick or spit on Shylock. Antonio, as well as the duke, effectively ends the conflict by starving it of the injustices it needs to continue.
More main ideas from The Merchant of Venice
1) What forms the foundation of the relationship between the two characters your group has been assigned? (Think about the ties they have with one another, how are they drawn to one another etc.)
There is familial love between Jessica and Shylock but Jessica is unfilial. The quote ‘To be ashamed to be my father’s child’ (2.3.16) shows that Jessica detests her father to the extent of being ashamed to be related to him. However, Solanio heard Shylock shout in the streets ‘ My daughter’(2.8.15) after he found out that Jessica left him with a Christian. This shows that Shylock cared about his daughter and loved his daughter so much that he was so overwhelmed with grief when she left that he shouted out loud in the public regardless of his image and reputation in the town. Thus, there is a one-sided love from Shylock to Jessica, Jessica does not appreciate Shylock’s love by being ashamed of him as well as running away from him which also shows that she is unfilial towards her father.
2) Does Shylock love his daughter? Explore how he appears to transform from a mere grumbling man to a malicious Jew. Is it purely out of spite towards Antonio?
Jessica’s selfishness caused Shylock to be a malicious Jew. Jessica disregards her father’s feelings towards her elopement. She only thought about escaping her controlling father and her ‘house is hell’ with Lorenzo, gaining the freedom that she wanted. This implies that Jessica is selfish, she ignored the possible outcomes and consequences of her actions and carried on with her selfish plan to elope with Lorenzo, a Christian, when she could think about alternative methods to change her father and his hate for Christians. Moreover, Jessica shows complete disregard for her father by saying ‘ I have a father, you a daughter lost’(2.5.16) as she did not spare a thought about the disappointment her father will feel and the loneliness he would have to face without his wife and daughter by his side. Therefore, Jessica’s selfishness caused Shylock to be a malicious Jew by escaping with a Christian and arousing Shylock’s anger and hate towards the Christians
resulting him to want to get revenge against the Christians for causing him to lose his only daughter.
3) How has this relationship changed/progressed/deteriorated throughout the play.
Jessica and Shylock shared a rocky father daughter relationship. Before Jessica eloped with Lorenzo, Shylock showed Jessica care by being a controlling father who applied rigid rules from the Jewish religion in their family, this is shown by the way Shylock treats Jessica. From the quote ‘Do as I bid you. Shut doors after you’(2.5.51) it shows how controlling Shylock is to his daughter, Shylock not only wants to lock up his daughter to the world he also doesn’t want Jessica to experience Venetian society, and Jessica shows her resentment towards her father when she said ‘ I am daughter to his blood but not to his manners’ (2.3.17). Furthermore, after Jessica left, Shylock had began to hate her daughter for leaving him with a Christian and stealing his money, ‘Justice,find the girl’(2.8.21) and ‘I would my daughter were dead at my foot’(3.1.75) shows that he wants his daughter to be caught and to be reported to the police or better yet dead so that his riches that were stolen could be returned to him , but, regardless of what happened he still acknowledge Jessica as his daughter and cared for her marriage when he said ‘I have a daughter’(4.1.292) and ‘ any of the stock Barabbas had been her husband rather than a Christian’ this implies that he wanted his daughter to marry a man whom he thinks is good not someone like a Christian who looks down on Jews which shows that he cared for her. Therefore, the relationship between Shylock and Jessica was a rocky one, Shylock’s feelings towards Jessica changes throughout the play, when he was feeling lonely or thinking about his daughter he showed his concern for her but when he was thinking about his ducats and his wealth that was stolen by his daughter he shows disappointment as well as his resentment towards his daughter and Christians.
2.3: Jessica passes the letter which she wrote to Launcelot asking him to
pass it to Lorenzo. 2.5: Shylock tells Jessica that he would be going to supper with some of the Christians and ordered her to lock up the doors as he does not want her to go out. Shylock nearly found out Jessica’s plans to elope when Launcelot gave her the instructions from Lorenzo. 2.6: Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, stealing her father’s money and jewels. 3.1: Shylock hears about Jessica wasting his money and also about her selling his precious ring that his wife gave him before they were married. 4.1: Shylock was upset as he felt that his daughter was stolen from him by a Christian and that she could have married a better Jewish husband. 4.1: Shylock converted to Christianity and agreed to leave his wealth to his daughter and her husband.